Welcome to the Forum newsletter for our latest round-up of news and cultural events from the Early Modern period.
We start this edition with a story from the Guardian about the campaign to bestow France’s greatest honour on a woman, which sees the eighteenth century activitist Olympe De Gouges top of the list of possible candidates. She fought to give women the right to divorce, for civil partnerships and against slavery, and is now one of a few women being considered for membership of the Panthéon, France's secular necropolis. The feminist movement Osez le féminisme (Dare to be a feminist) has launched an e-petition to put pressure on President François Hollande to admit more women to the Panthéon. De Gouge was arrested and guillotined in 1793.
The public has been asked for help in recovering images of medieval saints that were hacked from a 15th-century oak screen in a remote country church in Devon. The Holy Trinity church, at Torbryan in Devon, is in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust charity, which described the theft as “devastating". Panels of St Victor of Marseille and St Margaret of Antioch, were hacked out of the screen and a third image, of a female saint, was damaged before the thieves abandoned the attempt to remove it. The paintings were taken between 22 July and 8 August. The painted saints, once part of a procession of 40 panels stretching the whole width of the church, are exceptionally rare.
Laura Cumming in the Observer reviewed the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s exhibition Witches & Wicked Bodies , which is on show in Edinburgh until November 3. She says the revelation is that what witches look like had to be dreamed up by artists in the first place, and that they had such a vivid career in art from the fifteenth to the twentieth century, before descending into Halloween cliché. The exhibition includes works by Durer, Goya, Delacroix,Henry Fuseli to show the evolution of the witch in art.
The exhibition was also reviewed by Richard Dorment in the Telegraph , who found it spirited but ultimately rather samey, and said were the witches not identified as old and ugly, a lot of the pictures in the show would have been seen as pornographic.
Elizabeth I and Her People at the National Portrait Gallery in London, which runs from October 10 – January 5, has the highlight of including the earliest known depiction of a guinea pig in English art. The painting of the animal and three young children is believed to be by an anonymous Flemish or Dutch trained artist, and from around 1580. The exhibition tracks changing fashion in portraiture, and also features lots of exotic and humble animals, including an elephant on a family crest, a ring in the shape of a grasshopper and a purse shaped as a frog.
In the Telegraph, Richard Dorment wrote that the exhibition Mary. Queen of Scots , on show at the National Museum of Scotland until November 17, will engage the mind and heart like no other in Edinburgh this year. It includes a necklace of pomander beads she gave her lady in waiting, a ring, the casket which contained letters implicating her in murder, a backgammon set and wall hangings she worked herself. He finds it infuriating that some important documents on show are not transcribed so visitors can read them, but the quality of loans and beautifully-designed installation make sure the subject of the exhibition is not sensationalised.
In the Guardian, Jonathan Derbyshire reviewed The Dark Side of the Enlightenment by John V Fleming, and says it is with relief that he finds Fleming acknowledges that the European Enlightenment had a lot to do with religion. But he finds the author does not seem interested in attempting to answer a lot of profound questions raised, and “his approach, breezy and charmingly belletristic, is unabashedly impressionistic”. But he does write vividly and entertainingly about a number of episodes.
Witches, A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction by Tracy Borman has been reviewed in several places. In the Telegraph Robert Douglas-Fairhurst called it an absorbing study and says if there is one moral to be drawn from it, it is that the early seventeenth century was not a good time to be a woman in Britain., especially if you were also poor, old and knew about traditional medicine. He wrote that Borman’s contribution to the literature on witch-hunting is in the detailed reconstruction of a single trial, of former employees of the owner of Belvoir Castle in 1619, which she uses to examine the period.
David Wootton reviewed the book in the Guardian , and described it as a superb history of the witch craze in early modern Europe, focusing on the one case, and that it was “enthralling and accurate”. He does though doubt one central claim of the book, that the defendants confessed because of torture, seeing as there was no claim of it at the time. Wootton says though that the last part of the book, where the author tries to expose the Duke of Buckingham as the real murderer, as having so many things wrong with it, it is hard to know where to begin.
In the Observer , Bella Bathurst says the book is being sold as an account of the Belvoir scandals, but in truth it is “a thorough and beautifully researched social history of the early 1600s, taking in everything from folk medicine to James I's sex life.”
In the Telegraph, The Huguenots , by Geoffrey Treasure, offers sobering parallels with our own time says John Gallagher. He says the thoughtful study charts the story of the Protestants over two centuries, and is a history of theology and high politics more than a ground-level study of Huguenot life. He says though the book suffers from an uncertainty as to who it is aimed at, being too general for the scholar, but offering details the general reader might find daunting.
In the TLS, Jennifer Potter reviewed The Hermit in the Garden , From Imperial Rome to ornamental gnome, by Gordon Campbell, looking at the British craze which apparently began at Richmond with William Kent’s ornamental hermitages for Queen Caroline, consort to George II. He examines the strands in Georgian culture, horticultural, antiquarian, philosophical, literary and architectural, which engendered the fad, but more tenuous is the connection he makes between ornamental hermits and garden gnomes.
The Experience of Beauty in the Middle Ages by Mary Carruthers was reviewed by Richard Braude from the University of Cambridge. He finds this book “essentially comprises several good essays on philology disappointingly bound together by conservative polemic and confused statements on aesthetics.”
Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years War : Ransom Culture in the Late Middle Ages by Rémy Ambühl is reviewed by Dr David Green of Harlaxton College, who says in an important contribution to the subject of ransoming, the author explores the wider process and examines how it applied to society as a whole during the Hundred Years War. He looks beyond the impact on those of noble and royal blood, to look at how ransoming influenced the lives of ordinary soldiers. Dr Green says the book has much to offer those interested in prisoners of war in other periods, but they will need to be well briefed on the context here as there is little to guide those with no background knowledge.
The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre: The Mysteries of a Crime of State by Arlette Jouanna is reviewed by Professor Barbara Diefendorf, which she describes as a welcome translation of an important book, which is as fluid and vigorous as the original. It only engages with French historiography, possibly because of its original intended audience, but she finds the author has “pieced together a powerful argument about the motives for and meanings of the Massacre”.
A new book by Professor Lucy Newlyn, professor of English Literature at Oxford University, examines the relationship between the poet William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy. Allan Massie in the Telegraph wrote that she demonstrated how much both their work derived from their collaboration . He says the book is severely academic and completely unsensational, and the author “convincingly demonstrates” how much William owed Dorothy.
Tudor: The Family Story by Leanda de Lisle, and Crown of Thistles by Linda Porter were reviewed by Giles Tremlett in the Observer. He described them as two bold new histories which widen the focus on the Tudors, adding context and meaning. De Lisle’s book explains where the Tudors came from and where they got to, and Porter’s told the back stories of England and Scotland as they headed towards a union which we often assume was inevitable, though he says there was nothing inevitable about it.
In the Times Higher, Lucy Wooding, a senior lecturer in early modern history at King’s College, London, reviewed Household Politics : Conflict in Early Modern England by Don Herzog, and found it a puzzling book, saying the author saw himself as a radical and playful iconoclast, with affectedly casual prose, but then delivered conclusions as though they were groundbreaking when they “describe fairly straightforward aspects of early modern society that we have known about for years”. She says that the book is entertaining because of its focus on bawdy poems, satirical plays and rude songs, but there is little focus on the political upheavals of the years 1650-1750 it examines, and not much about religion.
Music at Midnight: the Life and Poetry of George Herbert , by John Drury, is reviewed by Diarmaid MacCulloch, fellow of St Cross College, Oxford and Professor of the History of the Church, in the Telegraph, and he is enthralled by the unusual life of the poet parson of the seventeenth century.
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